“I like the poem ‘Purity’ by Billy Collins as a way to think about writing poetry,” a poetry student wrote to me recently. She also had some profound questions about the poem, beginning with, “As Christians, while writing poetry, are we still Christians after we’ve stripped ourselves pure as Billy Collins says?”Read More
Filtering by Tag: Howard Schaap
We’re driving home from shopping, two 40-something parents and their three teen and tweens. It’s January. Call us old-fashioned—we listen to the radio, Rick Dees. It’s not just the Weekly Top Forty; it’s a countdown of #1s. A list of a list. We click around but the kids insist—“Go back to Rick Dees!”This pop culture is ruining them, I think, ruining us all, a proud tradition of pop culture ruin for every generation—Rick Dees, Casey Kasem, Dick Clark.Read More
“Say you have a special child.” So begins Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No. 2, a memoir that travels the South of Richard’s youth with breakneck speed, from old Civil War battlegrounds to special children’s hospitals to Wanchese scallop boats to New York City and back to a small black Baptist church in North Carolina. It’s a book I read with my creative nonfiction writers to get them to think about the arc of their faith but also to play with point of view.Read More
I first came across the idea of the “holy fool” in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, “Gimpel the Fool.” The story was in a literature textbook I was using, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me what it meant. That was all the better. Even though I count it as a real flaw in my literary education that no one brought up the archetype of the holy fool, a story like Singer’s is best stumbled on alone, where the story’s very oddity throws you into vertigo.
In the story, Gimpel the baker is the butt of everyone’s jokes. The biggest joke? The townspeople marry him off Hosea-like to the town prostitute, who bears him six illegitimate children. Repeatedly, Gimpel takes action to end the marriage, but instead comes to conclusions like, “What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God himself you won’t take stock in.”
For a long time, I’ve struggled with the designation of Christians as “believers” for two reasons: on the one hand because it’s too wide, designating naivety and gullibility for products from Buddy Christ bobbleheads to the Precious Moments Chapel; on the other hand, because it’s too narrow, as Christians seem to be willing to believe in primarily one direction, primarily allegorical—as in, Gandalf is Jesus and the dwarves are the twelve disciples (Crap, there’s thirteen; well, Tolkien’s a word guy, must’ve miscounted).
Then, in graduate school, I came upon, well, unbelievers.
One of them, in 19th Century Nature Writing, called into question the basic ethic of the course, that we should value life because life was itself a good. “How do I know that ‘life’ is a ‘good’?” she asked. “How do I know that it’s not better that life go extinct?”
Now that’s radical, respectable doubt. She’s right: “We should value life because we should value life” is not believing; it’s tail-chasing.
In another class, I read Life of Pi with a smattering of students who were studying to be experts of story. Famously, that book spends two-hundred-plus pages recounting the trans-pacific trip of a boy on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Then, it performs a bait-and-switch. Investigators arrive on the scene who doubt the story. The survivor, Pi, then tells them a different story than the one we’ve been reading, a naturalistic tale in which all the characters are humans who kill each other in order to survive. The dilemma is, which story do you believe?
I take pride in the fact that I was the only one who took the first story. After all, I’m a believer. The rest? Unbelievers.
As per Singer’s story, “believing” is dangerous business: other people might quite literally shit on you, continually heap insults on you, stick you with their illegitimate children. But if you clump together with other believers under one roof and call it a church, what better place for illegitimate children?
I remember one critic on Singer’s story suggested that the Gimpels of the world get cooked in Nazi ovens. But isn’t that exactly the problem—that we blame the victim, believers, at the expense of the cynics? “Don’t believe,” the lesson goes, “or the Nazi’s will get you—we’re helpless to prevent them from rising to power and killing millions.”
Here’s the dirty little secret of a rationalist society: we revile the believer who sends all his money to the TV evangelists more than the TV evangelist; we revile Trump or Hillary supporters more than Trump or Hillary him- or herself.
I wonder if radical believing could blow up our polarized society. What happens if you believe what you see on Fox and CNN? What happens if you believe climate change and believe its doubters? What would happen if we believed everything that was said by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—and the green party—and the legalize marijuana party?
Maybe the holy fool explains the election season in America. Maybe that’s the only way to explain it. We turn into believers every four years.
But only partial believers. We should throw open the floodgates of belief, believe in every and all directions.
The Holy Fool archetype has roots in scripture—in Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, who actually refused God’s command to cook his food over burning human dung and settled for animal scat instead.
Why not give all away all your money, marry a prostitute, support her children with your diligent work at the bakery or prophesying at the town gate?
One final sign that I’m right on this, that I’m going to become an omnivorous believer: as I wrote this—no lie—I received a “random” email form a listserv I’m a part of.
It was from Richard Parker.
It usually doesn’t happen until about mid-journey. Up till that point, the sun has been up, and you can see where you’re going. You’ve never been in this kind of car before, and you like some of the buttons and the scenery outside your window—old barns or even the edges of industrial wastes—and just the experience of being in the passenger seat and wondering where it is you’re going. The driver has a hypnotic voice and quirks that are fascinating; a tattoo runs down the side of his neck—“R-A-” something.
Then, the fog or night closes down around you and the quirky driver puts on his blinker, and you think, now this is going to get good. Then, in a few moments there goes the blinker again. Pretty soon it’s all blinkers and turns and you’re getting carsick and thinking, “Where can this be going?” Now you know that you’re just turning to turn, the driver has no idea where he’s going but is having a ball and assumes you are too simply because you’re with him and he’s a master driver.
Finally, you pull into a gas station that only sells bad coffee and outdated gum. “We’re here,” the driver announces, blowing a kazoo, “wasn’t that amazing?” He scratches his neck and you realize the tattoo stops right there, that the A of the R-A- isn’t even finished, that it’s part of the outfit and probably only temporary.
There’s something about “writing as journey through the fog” that drives me crazy. Yes, you can make the whole journey just by what you see in the headlights, but you can also drive pointlessly to nowhere.
This may simply be fiction envy on my part. I’m told that often good characters are the ones who take the wheel. Bless all the fiction writers who give up the keys like this. I myself literally cannot do it.
In writing memoir, the unknown functions a bit differently. You know where you’re going. You even know all—or almost all—the different roads you might take to get there. This takes things like suspense almost completely out of play, and it means you depend on having a clear day, because in writing memoir you don’t focus on the headlights—you look out the side window and what you see there had better be crystalline. It might be warped and full of grotesqueries, but they have to be clear grotesqueries.
Perhaps a better metaphor for writing memoir is gardening. Tilling and re-tilling the earth of memoir can feel redundant. Are you really going to go back to the same patch of earth again this spring? But it’s in the tilling you find things. It’s in the seasoning of earth that new richness emerges: a pepper plant with nuanced flavors springs right from that same old re-tilled patch.
I’d written about my name, Howard, dozens of times; then, in a writing exercise I stumbled on the word “anachronism.” Recently, the name became a millstone that drags me back through the waters of time to the big white sink and drain board where my mother is thawing meat. That sink screams 1950s to me, which is the decade when my dad’s brother died in Korea, bequeathing me the name.
Not much perhaps, just some soil where pepper seeds may or may not take.
But for me, this soil of discovery is the delight of writing memoir, Frost’s hallmark, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
It’s so staged, so false, so politician of him. After a days-long drama of political wrangling over authority and jurisdiction that extends into the dream world of his wife, the man of power ends the debate with a gesture. Perhaps it’s his political signature: staged events to render judgments. Perhaps, backed into a corner, it’s only this time that he does it. Perhaps it’s simply functional, a way to communicate to those in the back of the crowd who can’t hear. Whatever the case, to put an end to the problem of Jesus of Nazareth, Pontius Pilate resorts to gesture: a subordinate appears on stage bearing a bowl and a towel; the man washes his hands, dries them, leaves the stage. I don't think I understood what gesture was before Paula Huston introduced it to me three years ago. Gestures come in all styles and types, from dramatic to mundane, even compulsive. Just yesterday, in the middle of a class that I team teach, as the other prof did his thing, I found myself pulling at the point of my lip, a bad habit from childhood that my wife has been trying to break me of for years. It’s the kind of thing I used to be self-conscious of, the unguarded moments when we return to childhood coping mechanisms.
Then I learned about gesture.
In Bich Minh Nguyen’s book Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir about growing up Vietnamese and Buddhist in white, Christian Grand Rapids, Nguyen creates a character named Jennifer Vander Wal, a girl who seems straight out of a Cheer commercial due to the clean, controlled, middle class figure she cuts in life. Except for one thing: Jennifer compulsively licks her top lip, a glimpse, says Nguyen, of her lack of control, her humanity, and as such a hopeful gesture in its own mundane way.
So, standing in front of a class of college seniors, in that weird position of vulnerable power that is teaching, I kept pulling my lip, marking my humanity.
I love good gestures in writing, am constantly on the lookout for them. And I want to write good gestures, for which there is at least one clear truth: You can't force them. If they are to carry power, they should be either liturgical, coming from a pattern of gesture that lends them some weight, or they must spring from someplace so surprising that they flip the script. That's why every year students miss one of the simplest, most profound gesture in literature, that of the grandmother from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” Simple, meaningful touch, reaching across the barriers that the grandmother herself has been attempting to put between her and the Misfit, and for which she receives a more violent return gesture, which is all students see.
The power of gesture is why Matthew doesn’t fail to give us the political stunt of Pontius Pilate. The staging, the liturgical water, a handwashing that washed nothing, an unbaptism. Or why several gospel writers give us our savior’s much more meaningful washing gesture, one that came out of a liturgy the disciples recognized as something performed by a servant: the stripped-down Son of God wrapped in a towel, bowing before them, the lowly-intimate touch of cleaning their dirty feet, a gesture that washed everything.
Yesterday, in Intro to Lit we looked at Kim Addonizio’s "First Poem for You." Students are mystified by the poem’s touches, how the speaker traces her lover’s tattoos, contemplating that they’ll last even beyond their love, till he’s “seared to ashes.” “Such permanence is terrifying,” the speaker says, “So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.”
This is a pretty good prayer for our times. All of postmodern life feels like a handwashing. Black lives matter. Tribal battles for rights. Sex trafficking. Prison reform. International labor abuses. Environmental destruction. All broad headings about which we try to say, “It’s not my fault, it doesn’t concern me,” but behind which are specific lives, specific plots of land, local ecosystems.
Perhaps the answer is gesture. To move beyond the headline, to make contact with someone, to reach out a hand, to “touch them, trying.”
Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude as an undergrad was the joy of the deep end of the pool. Ghosts, mysterious ascensions into heaven, ageless gypsies selling wonders to drive one mad, generations of family traits and vices that vine and tangle about us until we’re all firmly in the grasp of immanence. Into these strange and profound waters we were thrown and told to swim, and nobody was an expert, all of us floundered, tried to touch the bottom and failed, got worn out and doggy-paddled to the side for a break. It felt dangerous and new; it felt fun.
Not long ago, I needed to write about my hometown, the same hometown I’ve written about a million times, the same hometown that we have oft dismissed with a wave of the hand around the table at family reunions. The writing was flavored by this humdrum shortsightedness. It was that small town with those same old gossip and false gods.
Not only was this description of the place false in its genericity, it was against a personal philosophy of mine: no small town, no landscape is exactly the same; each needs to be recognized for its nuance and character apart from our stereotypes of places like it. Simply put, I needed to see the place with new eyes.
So I thought, what would Gabriel Garcia Marquez do? What about this small town, Leota, Minnesota, is Macondo-like?
The short answer might be nothing. Setting does matter; Minnesota prairie is not Colombia rain forest. Then, too, the belief system is different; a certain calculating realism of North America may simply iron the magic out of life with the tall grass. Remove 99% of the local ecosystem and see what happens to the magic in your neighborhood.
However, every place has its leveling forces, its conspirators against belief and wonder and hope. The artist has to have the power to follow the roots of these things deeper than simple pettiness of persons or pervasiveness of ideology. This is what makes Garcia Marquez’s vision so stunning. It’s so rooted in history that it’s mythic. And magic.
So, okay. Take a central image of village life for me. For his birthday, we would give my frugal grandfather a bottle of Mogen David wine. A sort of mischievous smile would spread across his face momentarily before being replaced by a more solemn one. Rising on shaky feet, he would close the window shades, lest the neighbors pass by and see him drinking a glass of wine on his birthday.
But what else was a-loose in the streets that Grampa was keeping out? Had the ghost of the man said to have been killed in a bar fight by my great-great grandfather trailed the family here, to the backstreets of Leota, from the Netherlands? Had the Huguenot martyrs, from even deeper in the family line, two languages removed from the English in the room? When you invite in the great cloud of witnesses—and when you make those witnesses, for the sake of story, the undead—suddenly the place takes on a whole new tone.
When I thought of the place this way, something sparked.
Then I texted my sisters. “Sibs,” I said, “I need colorful characters from Leota. I know you remember some, so . . . go!”
The exchange went on for hours. There was the wandering prophet selling Jerusalem artichokes whose magic crop withered in the fields as soon as he dissolved on the horizon. The substantial piano teacher who lived in the hardware store, big enough to divide herself in two and teach lessons in the back while serving customers in the front. The lone organist who played at her own funeral like everybody knew she would. There were divining rods and town festivals with angels and gypsies and dead men that wouldn’t lay down and families with fifteen children all with different colored teeth.
Not so un-Macondo-like after all.
And not so made up.
All of the magic was in the stories already, I just had to listen.
A friend of mine who wants to put baseboards in his house was told what it takes to do good baseboard work: a thousand cuts. I can’t tell if that’s a type of hope, as even the best get to be the best through tedium not talent, or a type of torture, viz., death by a thousand maddening cuts.
I’ve spent this summer trying to make things: I made a duck cage; I helped a friend put up a garage; I vinyl tiled a room checker board; I hung cabinet lights in wall recesses; I made a cardboard Pac-Man for the town parade. It’s been a summer of measuring and figuring and cutting.
And it’s fixing to drive me mad.
It’s all the precision: miss your mark, cut long or short, and the piece won’t look right at best and may throw off the entire structure at worst.
A great aunt of mine once engaged an essay I had written for a school publication first by applauding the effort and then by taking issue with a word I had used: epiphany. “I would have used a slightly different word,” she said, “something more precise.” She wasn’t wrong. As a young writer I was tempted to fling words as opposed to measure them.
I still am.
In all sorts of ways, we take measure of the world with the words we use. We frame it or misframe it, in precise and sound ways or vague and off-kilter ones; with thin beautiful lines or smudged or gaudy ones.
“Persimmons,” by Li-Young Lee begins with the confusion of language.
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker slapped the back of my head and made me stand in the corner for not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision.
Among other things, “Persimmons” is about language and how it frames our existence, how words get tied into experiences, how they might remain distant or be shared intimately.
Other words that got me into trouble were fight and fright, wren and yarn. Fight was what I did when I was frightened, Fright was what I felt when I was fighting. Wrens are small, plain birds, yarn is what one knits with. Wrens are soft as yarn. My mother made birds out of yarn. I loved to watch her tie the stuff; a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.
By the end of the poem, Lee leaves “precision” behind in favor of “persimmons,” because writing is not like laying pipe or building a structure that we think will last forever if only it’s precise. Words open up possibility and imagination. “Persimmons” begins with the precision of language but it ends with art, with a father’s painting of persimmons, and his deep knowledge and associations with the word.
Some things never leave a person: scent of the hair of one you love, the texture of persimmons, in your palm, the ripe weight.
Poetry is the possibility through precision. Or beyond it.
Both ways, it’s a labor of a thousand cuts.
I think of it like fingerprinting—fingerprinting for someone’s being-in-the-world.
Anybody can do it. Perhaps the best place to start is with those closest to us. I have three sisters: one with laser intellect able to bless or zero you through her eyes; another with a Phoenix-like power, able to sacrifice her body and make it rise again; and a third with a charisma spoken right from the heart, which effects everyone it touches like pixie-dust.
Then again, it’s a practiced art. Think of the teachers who first name it for us, who watch hundreds of students parade through their classrooms, but who turn to us and name it, the thing in us that we grasp onto and say, “I am __________.”
The “thing in us” that I’m talking about is something akin to the Native American term “medicine,” though that concept is larger and more powerful still, a concept about which I’m not qualified to speak. Humbly, though, I’d still like to borrow this term “medicine,” a term that speaks to one’s powerful effect on the world, an outworking of an individual’s internal qualities.
To name someone else’s medicine takes intimate knowledge or just careful observation plus language, which is why it is so often the domain of teachers or writers. Language undoubtedly plays a role in understanding these things, in “unlocking” them, to tie into the language of self-help, which for my money flattens the concept. In naming a person’s medicine, we cause those qualities to be, we bring them forward from the chaos of personality and give them being that they might be wielded in the world.
In writing terms, to name someone’s medicine is creative nonfiction’s version of characterization, except it’s naming what’s already there. Actually, then, it’s more like simple exposition: naming the power that inheres in a person that is their driving force in the world. Naming someone’s medicine, and knitting various people with their various medicines together, surely transforms the world into a place of possibility.
It’s a skill we could stand to cultivate. Another easy place to start is with the famous. Muhammad Ali’s self-characterization, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” only captures one aspect of his powerful medicine, one that both continues to ripple in the world and of which we now feel the loss. Currently, I’m spellbound by the wood elf mischief of the basketball player Steph Curry: elusive, playful, masterful.
But mostly, I think, we should look at the people right around us, to name the medicine in the lady we otherwise might look past, in the fellow who has no beauty that we should desire him. There might even be prophetic insight or balm for the world in the act. How much medicine is lost on the world because there is no one to name it?
This fall, I plan to take my twelve-year old pheasant hunting for the first time, as my father took me. Last fall, when he was eleven, I took Micah out to shoot in a gravel pit outside of town, after which time I had one question:
What was my dad thinking?
A shotgun in the hands of a twelve year old is an unnatural thing. Even my simple single shot 20 gauge doesn’t fit his body, overbalancing it and conjuring young David in Saul’s armor at best and Wilfred Owen’s “Arms and the Boy” at worst. Though several of his friends already went hunting this year, meaning the peer pressure’s on, after seeing him shoot I contemplate putting him off another year—until his body grows into it, I tell myself.
Enter Hunter Safety training. In order to legally carry even the metal tube plus firing pin that is the shotgun I own, Micah has to complete twelve hours of online course material that will take him through things like a short history of the gun, the various moving parts of various types of guns, and situational hunting ethics, and he’ll have to be able to show that he can handle a .22 safely under the watchful eye of an instructor at a scheduled “field day.”
Observing the online course over his shoulder, I’m reminded of why guns and hunting are so bewitching: particularity.
Consider the action types: break action (think the double-barrel shotgun of every old coot in every old film you’ve seen), bolt action, lever (think every western), pump (think onomatopoeia: “snick-cluck,” in one Faulkner story, “chuh-chuh” in ominous adolescent boy parlance), and semi-automatic. Going through action types feels like insider information, and I can feel Micah’s interest grow.
In a later chapter, a man literally up to his eyes in camo disappears against the backdrop of a tree; his decoys set carefully in the field in front of him, he squeaks out a perfect turkey cluck with what looks like a stick and cross section of limb but is really a slate call. Micah asks, “Can we go turkey hunting?”
My question exactly.
Once, during my MFA program, the fiction writers heard a craft lecture on the topic of guns. If you’re going to talk about something like a gun in your writing, the idea went, you’d better talk about them specifically and well. They came out bright-eyed, thinking about their work and the world more closely.
This is what details and paying attention and writing do: focus us in on the world.
Micah passes the field day tests. Seeing how conscientious he is in handling the .22, I feel somewhat better. At the end of the day, the students are given a chance to shoot clay pigeons, first with a 20 gauge and then a 12 gauge. I convince Micah to try it, though he’s nervous. He’s never shot either, and he’s worried about the kick they will give, and whether he’ll miss. Knowing the situation, he’s probably equally embarrassed to not shoot, a more dangerous motivation, conjuring in a small way The Things They Carried.
But we’re among friends here. One of Micah’s instructors was also the instructor at my field day almost thirty years ago, a man who once told me how disappointed he gets when the novels he reads don’t get the guns right. When it’s Micah’s turn, he readies the black 20 gauge pump and once again looks the part of David. The gun’s unwieldy; he looks as if he could tip over. As the first pigeon wheels outward, a bright orange disk against the warm background of gravel piles, Micah fires but misses, the disk breaking against the ground. He carefully snick-clucks the second shell into place. When the second target spins through the air, Micah finds it at the end of his bead and fractures it with his shot. He’s satisfied, even pleased, but also ready to leave. He doesn’t feel the need to shoot a bigger gun.
I look forward to the fall pheasant hunt: father and son in blaze orange amidst the shades of fall on a crisp October day; walking some rare, grassy corner of the plains; startling a bird skyward, a bird so painted it can only be exotic; maybe knocking it down with lead shot, opening the break action to smell the quick bitter smoke of the powder; toting the bird home to clean it, including heart, liver, and gizzard so Micah’s Grandma can cook it; eating it, as part of our particular practice, as laab gai, ground up with herbs and accompanied by a salty soup.
In reality, it might not work this way—the weather will be too cold, too hot, too windy; more likely than not, I’ll miss, hopefully Micah won’t; maybe we won’t see any birds and we’ll need to use frozen chicken for the laab. No matter, because the pageant of pheasant hunting, gun safety, eating laab gai, all of it is a way to turn us to the things of the world, the ongoing pageant of the specific.
It can’t make sense everywhere. I assume it has a temperate climate bias. Or, to be more precise, a four-season climate bias, yet it’s arguably one of the most lasting pieces of colloquial insight bequeathed to us from the recent past: “March comes in like a lion and goes out like lamb.” Or vice versa. That’s the allure of the phrase, I think, its seesaw mechanics. Pay attention to this one month, this little adage promises us, and you too can predict the weather. It’s tempting to make weather simple. The weather in any given place is distillable to a few features, to northeasters and lake-effect snow and Santa Ana winds. Where I live, any given day is likely to be ruined by wind, first and foremost from the northwest, straight out the arctic, and second from dead south, straight out the furnaces of hell.
I have wanted few things more than to be a weather connoisseur. Not to hide behind complaints and clichés but to distinguish between gradations of northwest winds. To really know a hundred of types of rain.
Or to have special insight about what’s coming. To have a trick knee that could forecast blizzards. (“Is there going to be a blizzard tomorrow?” a checker in a small town grocery store asked me once. I didn’t know, I confessed. “The old people say there is. They feel it in their bones.” We got 10 inches.) To predict precisely the first frost of fall by the blooming of goldenrod in the ditch. To know the rain is coming because, as a man once told me, “the martins are hunting the mosquitoes close to the ground.”
My calendar almanac does this another way, by including the names for Ojibwe moons—names which sound poetic simply because they connect more directly the world of things with the bodies and hearts of people: Snowshoe Breaking Moon (March), Maple Sap Moon (April), Wild Rice Moon (August), Little Spirit Moon (December).
Perhaps I’m gaining in the weather department. Not long ago, we got a wind from mere degrees north of due west, a direction from which we hardly ever get wind. Not a biting or vindictive wind, not lashing or blustery, raising the voices of trees and dropping them suddenly, as in a violent argument. A continuous but respectful wind out of the west, like slipping into a pool that is exactly your body temperature, like a stranger who seems familiar with your town ahead of time, who respects it without being asked to, even though he’s just passing through.
“Put weather in.” So read a quote I posted on a writing bulletin board when I was a high school teacher. Which is a way to say pay attention. Which is a way to say distinguish. Which is a way to say be a connoisseur.
Online, someone hypothesizes that there’s religious imagery to “in like a lamb, out like a lion,” since Christ is both lamb of God and lion of Judah. And so he is. And so he is the God of March.
I blame Tom Brokaw. Or someone, anyway, west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. This might qualify Walter Cronkite, too, who was no doubt the most powerful white man of my youth. The news itself, it might be said, was the direct descendent of Puritan plain style, the most complex stories broken down into a few short sentences delivered by stolid white men in serious, accentless tones with direct eye contact. And Midwestern English had a starring role.
Spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “accentless.”
The idea itself is illogical, like water without wetness. Language by nature has an accent. The idea that Midwestern English is accentless is therefore obvious bunk. Still, for generations it was the language of the news. Generations after Brokaw and light years from Cronkite, the Midwest continues to suffer from their legacy, the idea of accentless language.
Or the Upper Midwest does—maybe the northern plains—I’m not sure where to locate it. Certainly west of Chicago. Chicagoans’ accents are crystalized, their identity sure. Though also south of the Coen’s Fargo. North, certainly, of Hannibal, Missouri. Mark Twain’s writing is among the surest of itself, rooted, but Twain is a Southern writer. Sure, the Midwest feels affinity for Twain, but primarily in a kind of envy, as wannabes.
As a writer, I spent years trying to neutralize my voice. First, I tried to leave the Midwestern accent—or non-accent—behind by trying to sound smarter: I spent years trying on the greater non-accent of academia. That is, I thought as a writer I was supposed to climb to some position high above the biases and stereotypes of accented English, so I tried to leave Midwest English, a supposedly accentless English, for Academic English, a really accentless English.
I know it doesn’t make any logical sense, that being smart means you know there is no objective point of view or accentless English, but that’s certainly not the impression academic writing gives off.
Something has also changed about Midwestern English. Its supposed clarity has become equated with simplicity or facelessness. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the era of Kronkite and Brokaw hasn’t left a vacuum, if it hasn’t left us with Southern accent envy. This would help to explain the way Duck Dynasty has colonized the Midwest and why I see a Confederate flag displayed in the window of a tiny town (population: 50) I commute through every day—in Minnesota.
So, I'm trying to return to the Midwestern accent again—or, more precisely, to the accent in this part of the Midwest, south of Fargo, west of Chicago, north of Hannibal—to hear it, to align myself specifically with it. What are the ins and outs of the English spoken in my backyard? What has the language itself sheltered within its peculiar constructions and idioms?
But where do I turn for help? To Southern writers, where else? When Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit says about Jesus, “He thown everything off balance,” we know we’re in the middle of it, in the middle of a mind, in the middle of a place, in the middle of a theology. The best writers both align themselves with an accent, the diction of a place, and enable us as readers to get inside it, too. They both affirm it and hold it up to the light.
Which drives me to a second source: to the men at the downtown coffee shop, to the women at the supermarket deli, talking their Middlewestern talk, here in flyover country, the land of Tom Brokaw.
Underneath my mother-in-law's table sits a bucket with a lid. In it, fish sauce—made from four ingredients: fish, salt, water, time—rots its way beyond rot to the salty-savory goodness. It's fermenting, condensing into a flavor so intense that it will almost level you, like strong drink.
She tends to it by opening the pail occasionally—though never in the presence of guests—and turning the contents, perhaps adding more salt. Then she closes the pail again and returns it to its position under the table. And waits.
I think I first heard the word distillation used, literarily, in association with Emily Dickinson. That ideas could be that intense yet held in your hand, distilled, that was a powerful thing.
It's counterintuitive, distillation. In a country of gushers and booms, and in a time of series and tomes, the idea of waiting on a few distilled words seems, ironically enough, wasteful. Then again, this just isn’t something one says about the Harper Lees of the world.
I suppose ripening is a handier metaphor for the process of writing growing into itself. Then again, ripening may be what reading groups and MFA programs are for. But what happens post-reading groups, post-MFAs? I’ve waited so long for some of my essays to take shape that I'm afraid their peak flavors are past and they’ve moved into the logical outcome of the ripening metaphor: rot. Distillation, too, can be a cover for procrastination.
It can also backfire. There are essays which I put in the pail under the table and come to stir them only to find a sweet, cloying smell where there should be umami. This is the hardest, to throw something out.
But in general what’s the advantage of time? And how much time?
I found the ending to an essay—in writing a Relief blog, no less—about a year after I thought that essay was finished. Fermentation. Others of my essays, bloated to self-important lengths, I seem to be waiting to reduce down.
But how long is enough—or too long? Why do some combinations of words, like aged liquor, just get better? And is there really a recipe? Is it really as simple as the right ingredients, process, vessel, and time?
The first time I washed myself in sage smoke, it was my introduction both to smoke in ritual and to sage. I vaguely wafted the smoke around my head as I had seen others do, but the experience was entirely foreign to me. I’d stepped over this prairie plant all my life and never wondered about its character, its smell, its purifying capabilities. Wrapping myself in its smoke was a baptism of sorts. We were out on the prairie, at a Lakota burial site discovered on an Englishman’s farm, which the Lakota had come to re-consecrate. The foreignness I felt was entirely my own.
Back at the pot luck up at the farm, someone said, “Did you notice the hawk that was out there, blessing us?”
I had not noticed that either.
When I first read Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” it helped make manifest what I’d missed. “To pray you open your whole self/ To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon,” the poem begins, “To one whole voice that is you.”
I’m a stumbling pray-er. Too often for me prayer has been akin to a grocery list and un-akin to an opening.
Right off in “Eagle Poem,” too, we’re in an exterior setting powerful with heavenly bodies. This I know. I have a particular memory of fall in mind: sunset and one heavenly body ignites a sliver of the other, sending a shiver among the corn.
“And know there is more,” the poem continues, less as command than as a statement about the nature of being in prayer: You “open” yourself and “know” there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always sound but other Circles of motion. Like Eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings.
This is the first sleight of hand. The poem takes us from the more that we cannot see, and bypasses language, replacing it with the circles of motion there in the sky, with the eagle circling. And subject is joined to object: the exterior circling of the eagle sweeps clean the interior of the heart.
We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out this morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.
I see the circles, feel them even, external in my mind until the sky flips and suddenly it’s “Inside us.”
It’s the kind of thing I want from art, when the interior becomes the exterior, entangling Self and Other, till the Other is I and I, Other, and I have to disentangle again the one from the many, the firmament from the waters, the man from the dust.
Or do I?
The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere . . . Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.
We remove the low table from its place in the entryway, fold out and lock its two sets of legs, and place it on the area rug in the center of the living room. The table is inlaid with a fancy-looking peacock, but the plastic white edging is now almost completely broken off, and even the glossy surface is cracked and beginning to reveal the particle-board realities underneath. We accumulate mismatched sets of silverware and plates and water, a jug of water, and a roll of paper towels for napkins.
It’s August, the doldrums. People are dying: an elderly neighbor, a man from bible study, to say nothing of world terrors. With the frenetic academic year looming, there’s no telling how our family, together for the moment, might fragment.
. . . an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought.
The meal is a drawing together, as all meals are, an orchestration. The jaew bdak, a spicy fish paste, comes from minnows Keo salted and allowed to ferment for weeks in a pail under her table, salting and turning it until it became something powerful and lasting.
The two kinds of sausage, spicy and not, were made by a friend, given within the transaction of friendship that’s really a window between hearts allowing for the free exchange of goodnesses, tomatoes for sausages, without accounting.
The pak bone, the English name for which I can’t find even on the Internet, is a Lao vegetable we coddled through a cool spring while Keo was away, distinguishing its frail leaves from among the spurious seeds which combust spontaneously from soil.
Two types of long bean, the usual green type and a beautiful purple long bean, that someone on Facebook identifies in Chinese and Bing translates to cicada beans. These, too, are called up from the garden, as if the smell of the sky and the weight of the air made this the perfect year to grow them.
Sticky rice from Thailand in a bamboo basket.
Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out . . . in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.
The meal is a part of Keo, my mother-in-law. She’s drawn forth the frail pak bone by sheer force of will, stir-fried the dark green leaves and tougher stalks at full length so you have to wrestle with them, know their full being as you eat. She’s similarly ministered to the beans as they lengthen on their fence. Now, these are smashed in a mortar (koak) and pestle (sakk), again in a way so as to know their texture and fresh taste: the dry, earthy juice of beans among the sweetness of cherry tomatoes, the salt of fish sauce, garlic and Thai peppers on their way from green to red.
This August meal with Keo and the one orchestrated by Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse are aesthetically and materially different, there’s no doubt, but both share a beauty rooted in care that opens onto something greater. The placement of the purples and reds on the backdrop of greens in the bean dish; that dish flanked by the light colored sausage, the dark green pak bone, the pale warmth of rice, the light ochre jaew bdak—it works upon us this August, a meal, a piece of eternity.
“U2 is what church should be”; so read a line in Time Magazine when I was 13, a line that confirmed my fledgling belief in U2. I certainly felt elated and worshipful listening to The Joshua Tree, though I wasn’t entirely sure it was right to feel that way. This was just after The Joshua Tree had broken U2 worldwide enough to reach rural Minnesota, and just as the album and film Rattle and Hum, according to most critics, showed they had feet of clay.
Personally, I loved the black and white concert footage of Rattle and Hum. I loved the impassioned diatribe in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” so much I used it to pump myself up before junior varsity basketball games.
I first got to see U2 live during the Zoo TV tour, a very different animal. Bono licked the camera; Bono pulled the camera up to his leather-clad crotch; Bono came out dressed up as Mephistopheles. It wasn’t very churchy. Critics loved it. I was 16 and in the tenth row and unsure about these rock and roll antics.
I missed the Pop Mart tour, noted for its spectacle, and the props I saw on later tours—a laser-laced jacket, a swinging microphone, a stage like a spaceship—were perhaps not as grand or silly as the giant lemon.
This time around the U2 tour is called Innocence to Experience and, via home movie and songs new and old, concert-goers are invited on a trip down U2’s own memory lane while live tweets and fan-cams attempt to keep us in the present.
I was also struck by the emotions that I went through at this U2 concert. There was still the old elation, this time consciously tied up with surrender: at one point Bono went to his knees and said that very word (“Surrender to what?” I can hear my catechism teacher say). It sounds contrived, but to be fair, as Joshua Rothman points out, surrender is where U2 lyrics have been pointing all along.
And there was conviction, as usual. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is still like an open wound that brings me into the present moment and forces me to give a shit. Then, too, I’m not sure what American can listen to “Bullet the Blue Sky” and not consider it a call to repentance.
Perhaps more than in the past, though, this concert invited introspection, because if anything “Innocence to Experience” is memoir. Some have called that self-important, but it’s also just plain risky. You don’t go to a rock concert to introspect. It’s also rare. Rock concert memoir is simply not very common, the half-life on rockers being less than the average pair of jeans.
As good memoir does, I to E also provided leaping off points to consider where our own stories might intersect with the one being told on stage. For me, that moment was when confetti in the form of book quotes fell from the ceiling. I found myself gathering them madly, like veritable manna from heaven, to see what works they might be from: Alice in Wonderland, The Divine Comedy, the Psalms.
Over the years, U2 concerts have put me in the moment, moved me to care, frightened me with tongues and crotches, confused me with Mephistopheles, asked me to surrender, connected me to Alice in Wonderland. Is U2 what church should be? I don’t think so. U2 concerts are their own space, the artistic space of a rock and roll concert.
We stood at dusk among the new construction of what will be a $4 million addition to the local school. The work site was quiet, the powerful equipment left temptingly idle to men and women—the women among us seemed significantly less tempted—of our caliber, decision-makers of the school board. We felt self-satisfied, there’s no doubt, definitely influential, maybe powerful.
To make room for the project, the school had torn down the simplest of buildings, a Quonset that served as a kindergarten classroom for 45 years. The removal of that old building, itself an anachronism, had revealed the backside of the line of houses directly to the east, houses of a different ilk than the 2-, 3- and 4-car garage structures that go up around town in varying shades of olive drab.
Our eyes were drawn to one house in particular, the outbuildings of which included a garage with an impressively sagging roof, a small shed patched with various pieces of various-shaded tin, and a lean-to chicken-wire pigeon coop. The predominant white of the buildings had grayed with time, was now bluing in the twilight. Down to the color, it reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “Pastoral”:
When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors. No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.
Someone among us brought up the word “eyesore;” I was immediately offended.
Then again, I’m offended by Williams’ title itself. “Pastoral” is a bell that startles me from my reverie. What about “the houses of the very poor” is “pastoral”? They are perhaps only pastoral as they “[please] me best of all” in my romanticized voyeurism.
So “pastoral” grates on me, makes me blush. I live in a small town that strives for—is even a sucker for—the pastoral: the corn, watered this spring by rains as regular as those of God’s own garden, stands at freakish heights for miles around, the leaves gently rustling in the evening wind as fireflies rise to intermittently light the night; then just this week, a state newspaper reveals that our lakes and rivers are among the most contaminated in the region thanks to the chemicals that push the corn to freakish heights.
I must confess I don’t know who lives in the house we were contemplating, whether Boo Radley or a darker figure, or what kind of life the person leads. Still, there’s no doubt the house-all-out-of-line has a kind of beauty to it, especially compared to the new construction that takes its cues from the rather narrow range of a suburban ideal. Williams’ poem, though uttering “pastoral,” is about taking beauty where we can find it, in the odds and ends and corners, in stasis rather than progress, in sustainability rather than freakish corn. Yet with one word, “pastoral,” it pushes us perhaps most of all to self-reflection on our own idylls.
We’ll soon have a new school building and that will be good, but we lost a homely little hutch where for generations six-year-olds held hands, sang songs, painted with their fingers, and sat in the lap of their teacher while she told stories. That may be a net loss. Or this, too, may be a “pastoral.”
No one will think this of vast import to the nation.
My fathers’ siblings, the story goes, had no idea their mother was pregnant with him until they were mysteriously sent to stay with relatives and then brought home a few days later to find a baby in the house. My grandparents were not alone in this failure to communicate. From other stories I’ve heard, one might say this was a cultural non-practice of the time.
Sure, there was a flipside: I had a funny great uncle who, my sisters tell me, doubled as a dirty old man. Still, in a culture impossibly opposite to the extreme sexual reticence of my grandparents, it’s tempting to think of these days-gone-by as somehow modest.
That’s the way it goes in a culture of opposition, it seems to me: we become able to conceive—no pun intended—of only two extremes.
Perhaps this is why I found the character of Grandma Thunder in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House so refreshing. Erdrich introduces Grandma Ignatia Thunder as one of those “Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young.” The young man whom she primarily shocks is Joe Coutts, the adolescent narrator, who, upon visiting her house to get fresh fry bread and goulash, warns his friends to steer clear of any word she might twist into a double entendre—even words such as “hot,” “head,” and “come.”
The boys think they’ve successfully navigated the visit when another elderly woman drops by and uses the word “bony,” setting Grandma Thunder off on a bawdy tale that has the young men both blushing and transfixed. It’s a tale, as I understand it, very much within the oral tradition, full of both comedy and passion that—coming as they do from Grandma Thunder’s mouth—add up to real sex. And within the context of a novel whose central crime and metaphor is rape, Grandma Thunder’s sexual storytelling is both a hilarious and profoundly healing moment.
In fact, I’m advocating for more of it: more hilarious and healing sexual storytelling from the mouths of grandmothers.
Here’s my own experience: once, leaving for a date with a girlfriend from her apartment, her grandmother hollered something after us. The girlfriend, who would become my wife, scoffed, shook her head, blushed. “What’d she say?” I asked. Grandma Mouth (“Moot”), a Lao matriarch who spoke almost no English and occasionally chewed betel nuts, spitting an impossibly red-maroon spit into empty Folger’s cans, was utterly unpredictable to me.
“She said, ‘Don’t let him put his . . . in your . . .’”
As a young man, tempted to think I was discovering something that was anything but new in the world, it was a moment of humor and humility that I didn’t forget all through that night.
Or ever after.
The first time I was introduced to the idea of a supermarket was in an American Literature course, in Updike’s classic short story “A&P.” “I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P,” says Updike’s cocksure narrator Sammy, “and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering ‘Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!’ or whatever it is they do mutter.” Before Sammy, I had never considered that a supermarket was anything noteworthy or possible to disdain. Then came literature.
This March, I went into Walmart to buy my son a birthday present. When I found a particular Lego set he wanted in a clearly marked clearance section, I was sure I had struck gold—or at least a bargain. Then, the wrestling began: after a stocker’s blessing I was met with a clerk’s questioning, then waiting and waiting for a manager’s override, interspersed with another customer cashing out a voucher she wasn’t apparently supposed to. Between my bargain shopping and this other customer’s shady action, I suddenly had a vision of this clerk as gatekeeper between a multinational leviathan and middle-class Midwesterners who felt they were carting away riches one pocketful at a time from Sam Walton’s hoard. Finally, someone came over with a key and punched three buttons, and I made my getaway with the Lego set at—get this—less than half price. I had fought the dragon and won.
Like Sammy. Except not at all like Sammy.
By now, I know that the supermarket and its psychic data—that’s Delillo’s White Noise talking—is a trope. I was reminded of this again recently in stumbling upon supermarket scenes in both The Hurt Locker and The Wrestler, both of which feature the supermarket as the setting for the male protagonists’ crises. In The Hurt Locker, as Sergeant First Class William James faces a wall of cereal boxes and supermarket muzak, we can feel its absurd impenetrability. In The Wrestler, meanwhile, the cereal boxes are the perfect props for Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s meltdown and blood-smearing exit—Sammy on steroids. If in Updike the supermarket signals sameness and conformity, in The Hurt Locker it signals seemingly infinite choice and resulting meaninglessness, and in The Wrestler, it becomes just one more faux backdrop of the human bodily tragedy.
Something about these scenes conjures up Moby-Dick in my mind: Moby-Dick as a wall “shoved near” to Ahab, as the “pasteboard mask” that Ahab would “strike through.” For James, the cereal aisle is a brick wall; for Randy “The Ram,” it’s a façade beyond which is just another aisle.
Of course, it’s not just a façade. In Being Consumed, philosopher William Cavanaugh reminds us how the practices of consumption can actually detach us from the material world. There is a chain of production with iron links from raw materials to the Lego factory down to Walmart all the way to my purchase, and at each link in the chain are specific people. It’s these links that modern consumerism seems to want to keep from us. And it’s this abstraction, says Cavanaugh, that the embodied practice of the Eucharist counteracts.
To see anew the transactions of our lives—to recognize the leviathans and the gatekeepers and the hoarding and the misplaced heroism—may be the first step toward meaningful embodiment and understanding our need for Eucharist. And it’s those moments of recognition that can open up in a work of art, even at the supermarket.
“That was dance!” said the couple, who knows that my daughter has been taking dance much longer than she’s been playing basketball. “That was all because of dance!”
As a person who has almost always felt athletics and the arts at considerable odds with each other, I couldn’t have been happier with that comment.
Even though she’s fourteen, I still can’t help but feel like we’ve thrown our daughter into athletics the way I imagine some people throw their newborn infants into water: because we have heard the instincts are there and we want to put our children in touch with those instincts, force them to adapt so that they’ll be stronger and better in the end.
However, I choose this sink or swim comparison for another purpose as well: the water imagery. In general, athletics engages time differently than most art forms. Athletics is about the moment, the immediate; it’s about instantaneous perceptions and reactions; it compresses weeks and months and years of training into moments; it “squeeze[es] the universe into a ball.” In my daughter’s basketball game, she was thrown into the stream of time and the score measured her team’s reactions—valuing reactions certainly over reflections—against that stream as compared to the other team. Even clockless sports, such as baseball and golf, boil down to instantaneous reactions of the smallest fractions of seconds that make for achievement or defeat.
Art engages time rather differently. Often, art means to give us perspective, a wider view from which individual moments get their meaning. Art might attempt to create or recreate or freeze a moment in time, as in the crisis of J. Alfred Prufrock alluded to above, but even then the point is often that moment’s relationship to history or to the forces or character that produced that moment, preserved for us in art where it might impact history for hundreds of years.
We can see this time difference clearly in art works about sport. Sports films do better with story than they do capturing the sport itself: Rocky’s neighborhood and character are interesting; his fights are anything but “the sweet science.” Even “The Triumph of Death,” Don Delillo’s fictional retelling of “the shot heard ’round the world” that opens his novel Underworld, succeeds not because of the way it captures Bobby Thomson’s homerun but because of its wider vision of the event, more for the way it takes the variegated experiences of American life and coalesces them into a timeless moment than for the way it recreates the homerun itself. DeLillo himself knows this. Before the event, Russ Hodges, the actual radio announcer and DeLillo character who will himself momentarily call a piece of history, reflects on a Jack Dempsey fight he saw as a kid, “When you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history” (16).
Then again, maybe time is exactly what art and athletics share. The sweetest moments in both are when time seems to fall away, when time’s shallow stream yields to transcendence, or when we simply become aware of ourselves in relation to time in a way that puts everything back into perspective.
Both can do this. Yet my fear for my daughter, ballet-passer, is that, as the pressures of a sports culture loom on the high school horizon, the immediacy of athletics will predominate, that the slower truths and wider picture of the arts will get shoved to the sideline.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishin’ in,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
In this month that attempts to house both March Madness and Lent, this is my prayer for my daughter: that she both swim in the stream, the whitewater of time that is athletics, and crawl out to the banks of the arts and know that eternity remains.